Med thumb homeless blanket  sidewalk

Every night, millions of very fortunate human beings retire to decked-out beds in quiet, temperature-controlled rooms — and still struggle to get a good night’s rest. Take away noise machines and blackout shades, and logging your hard eight is even tougher. Eliminate the guarantee of a bed and the expectation of safety and, unsurprisingly, chronic insomnia kicks in.

Case in point: homeless women, a population vulnerable to insomnia whose sleep habits have, until now, gone largely unstudied.

Short of helping people escape homelessness and gain access to behavioral healthcare services, researchers are starting to explore simple methods for tackling insomnia. In a pilot study, published this month in the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing, researchers at the University of San Diego taught homeless women how to use personal mantras (think: “serenity now”) to stay and fall asleep. To lead researcher Mary Barger’s surprise, the simple technique worked.

The Study:

Researchers recruited 29 women living in transitional group housing and at “safe” car parks. (Safe parks lock at night, increasing safety for those who sleep in their cars.) Half of the women lived with children.

The women attended a 45-minute training session in which they learned how to choose and use short mantras. These personally meaningful phrases (which could’ve been spiritual, but weren’t required to be) were then repeated throughout the day and before falling asleep. The women also received an instruction guide with tips and bracelets to remind them the recite their mantras. They were told to practice for a week and return for a follow-up assessment.

Lead researcher Mary Barger admits she was skeptical that a week of reciting mantras could do anything for these women burdened by extreme hardship. Other mantra repetition programs had proven successful, but the current study only lasted one week, compared to a month or longer.

Plus, Barger and her team put together a makeshift training session in less-than-ideal conditions: They rounded up willing participants, and hastily ran them through the basics of mantra repetition in the parking lot.

“The lot was near the airport, so the planes were landing,” said Barger. “There was freeway noise, kids running around, people using outside bathrooms where these women were just sitting on the steps, and learning about mantra repetition.”

Still, more than three quarters of the women showed up a week later for the follow-up assessment. Their feedback was positive. Not only had the participants practiced mantra repetition as instructed, they also found the coping mechanism useful for easing general stress and falling asleep.

That the subjects saw benefits in just one week surprised Barger.

“[Previous researchers’] experience was that you didn’t get a benefit from insomnia until you practiced using (mantras) for four weeks,” she told Van Winkle’s. “So the fact that we found it in one week was amazing, because that wasn’t previous researchers’ experience. In our case, it worked in a week, and I think that’s because people were pretty desperate.”

The success of the pilot study paves the way for larger-scale research on the benefits of mantra repetition for people who face the most barriers to a good, safe night’s sleep.